Ring of Wisdom: A Sufi Tale
There was a king whose kingdom stretched from east to west, from the sea below to the moon above. You would have thought that he had everything he could possibly want. But no-his wishes and desires had no end to them.
One day, troubled by a melancholy mood, he conceived a new desire. He ordered his wise men to assemble before him. They came to hear the king’s command. “You must make for me,” he told them, “a ring of pure gold. And its power must be so great that whenever I look at it, my sorrow will change to joy, or my joy to sorrow.”
The wise men were perplexed. They might lose their lives if they could not fulfill the king’s command. Yet, though they knew of rings that could summon djinns and rings that could give their owners the power of flight, none of them knew of rings that could at a glance change sorrow to joy or joy to sorrow.
At last, they agreed on a plan. They told the jewelers and the goldsmiths, who joined together to work the metal and engrave it. The work was long and tedious, but at last the ring was ready.
When the appointed day came, they again assembled before the king and ceremoniously presented him with the wonder-working ring. It was of pure gold, and on it the inscription: In time, this too shall pass away.
When I ponder a theme for this blog, I often find myself willy-nilly in front of the question of the meaning of even such a simple and familiar word as sadness. And the meaning is always too big for me. I can never hope to do more, in one blog post, than point to some aspects of an idea, and perhaps to discover one or two that are not so obvious and bring a new angle of vision.
So, do we really know what sadness is? Many words and definitions spring to mind. But however closely they may be related, can we say that it is the same as grief, or despondency, or pain, or anguish, or sorrow, or depression? To call it un-happiness begs the question, for there are as many kinds of happiness as there are of sadness, and as many names for their different shades. It is not exactly the same to be joyful, elated, pleased, cheerful, fortunate, glad, or satisfied. Oddly enough, “satisfied” is one of the root meanings of the word “sad,” which we think of as the antithesis of satisfaction or happiness. In Old English, saed means “sated”; Latin satis means “enough.” So the original meaning of sadness is to have enough, or to have too much; yet the feeling of sadness in our human experience is connected with loss or lack. Has the content of the word changed so much that it has become its own opposite? Can words contradict themselves?
Here there is something to put the questioner of meaning on the alert. For though the emphasis changes with the passing of time, words, like people, can never lose altogether any part of their past. “Obsolete” meanings are not quite obsolete; they have just gone underground, and continue to exert an obscure influence. It is interesting, and not at all irrelevant to the study of the total meaning of “sadness,” that among its ancient definitions are such concepts as “seriousness” and “importance” and “firmness.” In Shropshire, England today, the expression “in good sadness” means “firmly, seriously, indeed and in fact.” And in fourteenth-century England, to sleep or to drink sadly did not mean to do so dolefully, but with commendable thoroughness.
In twentieth-century America, however, “sadness” is not at all commendable. One has only to be in a reflective mood, or in some way occupied with serious thought, to elicit from friend or stranger the protest, “Why are you so sad?”…..asif one were committing some kind of social sin. Is it really wrong to be serious? Could there be any pity, sympathy, mercy, or compassion in the world without a certain sadness, a taste of the suffering of others? It can even be said, that no true joy is possible without it, either.
The more we examine words as the symbols of ideas, the clearer it becomes that there are no synonyms. The study of their derivations and usages shows a range of related meanings widening to some whole we can never reach with words, but which words…..if we respect them enough in their differences and their relationships, and try to deal honestly with both…..can powerfully help us to approach.
But if aspects of the same thing cannot contradict each other, how can we understand that sadness can mean both having too much and not having enough? This question seems to lead us to the heart of our experience, and reveals that aspect of sadness which we have found the least obvious and the most interesting. It has to do, perhaps, with the “cosmic suffering,” and the only escape from it, of which the great yogis often speak of. For it refers to the different levels of our outer and inner worlds. We have, indeed, too much of what is not enough; and the sadness of our “not enough” is not on the same plane as the sadness of our “too much.” Maybe the lack we are most aware of (and what we seem to suffer from the most) is of this world’s goods or good fortune; but our suffering from such deprivation, whether imaginary or terribly real, is something other than true sadness. It is when we begin to feel that the problems and values of this world take up too much room, carry too much weight in relation to other more inner wishes; when we become aware of both our worlds at once, and know that we are overfilled, overwhelmed, overcome on this level of daily life, and in the inner life there is a great lack, a great hunger; when we experience this, our inevitable human situation, this, I think, is sadness.
One of my dear teachers once said that anger (with God, with life, and with oneself) must change to sadness: this state of seeing and acknowledging what is seen; accepting, but not with the sense of “resignation.” What, then, must sadness turn into, in the process of a developing understanding? This state of seeing truly how things are, with us and with the world, is like a landing on a stairway, from which we can go either up or down. We can go very easily from sadness to depression, despondency, self-pity, despair, and all the blackest, most useless, most destructive forms of negativity. Or the vision of how things are can come as the bearer of light, and be essentially useful for continuing a search for understanding. Out of this sadness of seeing…..and perhaps not from any other source……can come a need, and a reaching up for that possible relationship between our two worlds that, in giving sense to the one and reality to the other, could reveal to us a new world and our place in it as truly human beings.